Franz Rosenzweig and the Founding of the Lehrhaus
A review of the life, thought, and work of this influential 20th-century existentialist thinker and Jewish educator.
The following article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press
[Franz Rosenzweig was an] influential German Jewish existentialist thinker (1886-1929). Rosenzweig’s parents belonged to an assimilated Jewish family with little attachment to Judaism or Jewish life. He himself, although extremely well educated in general German culture and especially proficient in the classics of philosophy, had, at first, hardly any Jewish knowledge. A cousin who had become a Christian urged Rosenzweig to take the same step. The story has often been told of how Rosenzweig felt that if he was to be converted to Christianity he ought to do so as a Jew, moving, as he saw it at the time, from a lower to a higher form of religion.
While contemplating his conversion, he attended an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin on Yom Kippur. There he was so profoundly overcome by the devotion of the worshippers as they sought forgiveness from the God of their fathers that he realized there was no need for him to find his salvation outside his ancestral faith. As he was later to put it, the Christian claim that no man can come to the Father except through Jesus was true for all others but not for the Jew, since Jews, being already with the Father, had no need to “come” to him. Rosenzweig came to adopt the novel view that both Christianity and Judaism were true religions. Christianity for all others, Judaism for the Jews.
The critique of this position has often been advanced. If there is room in God’s world for these two religions to exist side by side, both as true religions, why should the same not be said of Islam, which is closer to pure monotheism than Christianity? The answer so far as an existentialist like Rosenzweig is concerned, was that Islam was not, for him, in William James’s famous phrase, a “live option.” Rosenzweig’s approach was subjective also in connection with the mitzvot, Jewish observances. He did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him. Typical of this approach is Rosenzweig’s answer to someone who asked him whether he wore tefillin [phylacteries]: “Not yet,” he replied.
After his awakening, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish studies, and in 1920 established in Berlin the Lehrhaus where Jewish teachers of high renown lectured on many aspects of Jewish life and thought. This remarkable institution provided German Jews with opportunities to follow Rosenzweig in the quest for a Judaism that spoke to their condition and would be authentic for them. Towards the end of his life, Rosenzweig was afflicted with a severe form of paralysis but he continued working and writing heroically…